In the Roar of the Sea/Chapter 24
A NIGHT EXCURSION.
Some people are ever satisfied with what is certain to give themselves least trouble, especially if that something concerns other persons.
Mr. Menaida was won over by the volubility of Mrs. Scantlebray. and the placidity of Mr. Scantlebray to the conviction that Jamie was in the very best place he could possibly be in. A lady who called Judith "my dear" and her husband "duckie" must have a kindly heart, and a gentleman like Mr. Obadiah, so full of resources, could not fail to divert and gratify the minds of those under, his charge, and banish care and sorrow. And as Mr. Menaida perceived that it would be a difficult matter to liberate Jamie from the establishment where he was, and as it was an easy matter to conclude that the establishment was admirably adapted to Jamie, he was content that Aunt Dionysia had chosen the wisest course in putting him there, and that it would be to the general advantage to cherish this opinion. For, in the first place, it would pacify Judith, and then, by pacifying her, would give himself none of that inconvenience, that running to and fro between Polzeath and Wadebridge, that consultation of law-books, that correspondence, that getting of toes and fingers into hot water, likely to result from the impatience, the unflagging eagerness of Judith to liberate her brother.
Accordingly Uncle Zachie used his best endeavors to assure Judith that Jamie certainly was happy, had never been so happy in his life before, and that, under the treatment of so kind and experienced a man as Mr. Obadiah Scantlebray, there was reason to believe that in a short time Jamie would issue from under his tuition a light so brilliant as to outshine the beacon on Trevose Head.
Judith was unconvinced. Love is jealous and timorous. She feared lest all should not be as was represented. There was an indefinable something in Mrs. Scantlebray that roused her suspicion. She could not endure that others should step into the place of responsibility toward Jamie she had occupied so long, and which she had so solemnly assured her father she would never abandon. Supposing that Scantlebray and his wife were amiable and considerate persons, might they not so influence the fickle Jamie as to displace her from his affections and insinuate themselves in her room?
But it was not this mainly that troubled her. She was tormented with the thought of the lonely, nervous child in the strange house, among strange people, in desolation of heart and deadly fear.
Whenever he had become excited during the day he was sleepless at night, and had to be soothed and coaxed into slumber. On such occasions she had been wont, with the infinite, inexhaustible patience of true love, to sit by his bed, pacifying his alarms, allaying his agitation, singing to him, stroking his hair, holding his hand, till his eyes closed. And how often, just as he seemed about to drop asleep, had he become again suddenly awake, through some terror, or some imagined discomfort? then all the soothing process had to be gone through again, and it had always been gone through without a murmur or an impatient word.
Now Jamie was alone—or perhaps worse than alone—in a dormitory of idiots, whose strange ways filled him with terror, and his dull mind would be working to discover how he came to be there, how it was that his Ju was not with him. Who would lull his fears, who sing to him old familiar strains? Would any other hand rest on the hot brow and hold it down on the pillow?
Judith looked up to heaven, to the stars already glimmering there. She was not hearkening to the talk of Uncle Zachie: she was thinking her own thoughts. She was indeed walking back to Polzeath; but her mind was nailed to that dull drab house in the suburbs of Wadebridge with the brass plate on the door, inscribed, "Mr. Scantlebray, Surgeon." As her eyes were raised to the stars, she thought of her father. He was above, looking down on her, and it seemed to her that in the flicker of the stars she saw the trouble in her father's face at the knowledge that his children were parted, and his poor little half-bright boy was fallen among those who had no love for him, might have no patience with his waywardness, would not make allowance for his infirmities.
She sobbed, and would not be comforted by Mr. Menaida's assurances. Tired, foot-weary, but more tired and weary in heart and mind, she reached the cottage. She could not sleep; she was restless. She sought Jamie's room, and seated herself on the chair by his little bed, and sobbed far on into the night. Her head ached, as did her burning and blistered feet; and as she sat she dozed off, then awoke with a start, so distinctly did she seem to hear Jamie's voice—his familiar tone when in distress—crying, "Ju! Come to me, Ju!" So vividly did the voice sound to her that she could not for a moment or two shake off the conviction that she had in reality heard him. She thought that he must have called her. He must be unhappy. What were those people doing to him? "Were they tormenting the poor little frightened creature? Were they putting him into a dark room by himself, and was he nearly mad with terror? Were they beating him, because he cried out in the night and disturbed the house?
She imagined him sitting up on a hard bed, shivering with fear, looking round him in the dark, and screaming for her—and she could not help him.
"Oh, Jamie!" she cried, and threw herself on her knees and put her hands over her eyes to shut out the horrible sight, over her ears to close them to the piercing cry. "They will drive him mad! Oh, papa! my papa! what will you say to me? Oh, my Jamie! what can I do for you?"
She was half mad herself, mad with fancies, conjured up by the fever of distress into which she had worked herself. What could she do? She could not breathe in that room. She could not breathe in the house. She could not remain so far from Jamie—and he crying for her. His voice rang still in her ears. It sounded in her heart, it drew her irresistibly away. If she could but be outside that drab establishment in the still night, to listen, and hear if all were quiet within, or whether Jamie were calling, shrieking for her. He would cry himself into fits. He would become really deranged, unless he were pacified. Oh! those people!—she imagined they were up, not knowing what to do with the boy, unable to soothe him, and were now wishing that she were there, wishing they had not sent her away.
Judith was in that condition which is one of half craze through brooding on her fears, through intense sympathy with the unhappy boy so ruthlessly spirited away, through fever of the blood, caused by long-protracted nervous strain, through over-weariness of mind and body. Jamie's distress, his need for her became an idea that laid hold of her, that could not be dispelled, that tortured her into recklessness. She could not lie on her bed, she could not rest her head for one moment. She ran to the window, panting, and smoked the glass with her burning breath, so that she could not see through it.
The night was still, the sky clear, and there were stars in it. Who would be abroad at that time? What danger would ensue to her if she went out and ran back to Wadebridge? If any foot were to be heard on the road, she could hide. She had gone out at night in storm to save Cruel Coppinger—should she not go out in still starlight to aid her own twin-brother, if he needed her? Providence had shielded her before—it would shield her now.
The house was quiet. Mr. Menaida had long ago gone to bed, and was asleep. His snores were usually audible at night through the cottage. Jump was asleep, sound in sleep as any hard-worked sewing-wench. Judith had not undressed, had not taken off her shoes; she had wandered, consumed by restlessness, between her own room and that of her brother.
It was impossible for her to remain there. She felt that she would die of imaginings of evil unless she were near Jamie, unless there were naught but a wall between him and her.
Judith descended the stairs and once again went forth alone into the night, not now to set her face seaward, but landward; before she had gone with a defined aim in view, to warn Coppinger of his danger, now she was moved by a vague suspicion of evil.
The night was calm, but there was summer lightning on the horizon, attended by no thunder, a constant flicker, sometimes a flare, as though some bonfire were kindled beyond the margin of the world, that was being stirred and added to. The air was close.
Judith had no one to look to in the world to help her and Jamie—not her aunt, her sole relative, it was she who had sent her brother to this place of restraint; not Mr. Menaida, he had not the moral courage and energy of purpose to succor her in her effort to release Jamie; not Captain Coppinger—him she dare not ask, lest he should expect too much in return. The hand of misfortune was heavy on the girl; if anything was to be done to relieve the pressure, she must do it herself.
As she was going hastily along the lane she suddenly halted. She heard some one a little way before her. There was no gate near by which she could escape. The lane was narrow, and the hedges low, so as not to afford sufficient shadow to conceal her. By the red summer flashes she saw a man reeling toward her round the corner. His hat was on one side of his head, and he lurched first to one side of the lane, then to the other.
Then he stood still.
"Huph! huph!" he shouted. "Some one else go on, I'm done for—'Ri-tiddle-de.' "
He saw Judith by the starlight and by the flicker of the lightning, and put his head on one side and capered toward her with arms extended, chirping—" 'Ri-tiddle- riddle-rol, huph! said he.' "
Judith started on one side, and the drunken man pursued her, but in so doing, stumbled, and fell sprawling on the ground. He scrambled to his feet again, and began to swear at her and sent after her a volley of foul and profane words. Had he contented himself with this it would have been bad enough, but he also picked up a stone and threw it. Judith felt a blow on her head, and the lightning flashes seemed to be on all sides of her, and then great black clouds to be rising like smoke out of the earth about her. She staggered into the hedge, and sank on her knees.
But fear lest the tipsy ruffian should pursue her nerved her to make an effort to escape. She quickly rose and ran along the lane, turned the corner, and ran on till her feet would no longer bear her, and her breath failed. Then, looking back, and seeing that she was not followed, she seated herself, breathless, and feeling sick, in the hedge, where a glow-worm was shining, with a calm, steady light, very different from the flicker of the stars above.
As she there sat, she was conscious of something warm on her neck, and putting her hand up, felt that it was moist. She held her fingers to the faint glow of the worm in the grass; there was a dark stain on her hand, and she was sure that it was blood.
She felt her head swim, and knew that in another moment she would lose consciousness, unless she made an effort to resist. Hastily she bound a white handkerchief about her head where wounded by the stone, to stay the flow, and walked resolutely forward.
There was now a shadow stealing up the sky to the south, and obscuring the stars, a shadow behind which danced and wavered the electrical light, but Judith heard no thunder, she had not the leisure to listen for it; all her anxiety was to reach Wadebridge. But the air, the oppressively sultry air, was charged with sound, the mutter and growl of the Atlantic. The ocean, never at rest, ever gives forth a voice, but the volume of its tone varies. Now it was loud and threatening, loud and threatening as it had been on that afternoon when Judith sat with her father in the rectory garden, tossing guelder-roses. Then, the air had been still, but burdened with the menace of the sea. So it was now at midnight; the ocean felt the influence of the distant storm that was playing far away to the south.
Judith could not run now. Her feet were too sore, her strength had given way. Resolute though her will might be, it could not inspire with masculine strength the fragile little body, recently recovered from sickness. But it carried her into the suburbs of Wadebridge, and in the starlight she reached the house of Mr. Obadiah Scantlebray, and stood before it, looking up at it despairingly. It was not drab in color now, it was lampblack against a sky that flashed in the russet-light. The kerchief she had tied about her head had become loose. Still looking at the ugly, gloomy house, she put up her arms and rebound it, knotting the ends more tightly, using care not to cover her ears, as she was intent to hear the least sound that issued from the asylum. But for some time she could hear nothing save the rush of her blood in her ears, foaming, hissing, like the tide entering a bay over reefs. With this was mingled the mutter of the Atlantic, beyond the hills—and now—yes, certainly now— the rumble of remote thunder.
Judith had stood on the opposite side of the street looking up at Scantlebray's establishment; she saw no light anywhere. Now she drew near and crept along the walls. There was a long wing, with its back to the street, without a window in the wall, and she thought it probable that the inmates of the asylum were accommodated therein, a dormitory up-stairs, play or school-rooms below. There Jamie must be. The only windows to this wing opened into the garden; and consequently Judith stole along the garden wall, turned the angle, down a little lane, and stood listening. The wall was high, and the summit encrusted with broken glass. She could see the glass prongs by the flicker of the lightning. She could not possibly see over the wall; the lane was too narrow for her to go back far, and the wall on the further side too high to climb. Not a sound from within reached her ears.
- In the still night she stood holding her breath.
- Then a scream startled her.
- It was the cry of a gull flying inland.
If a gull's cry could be heard, then surely that of her brother, were he awake and unhappy, and wanting her. She went further down the wall, and came on a small garden gate in it, fastened, locked from within. It had a stone step. On that she sank, and laid her head in her hands.